The 2014 baseball season is right around the corner and the World Series champs, the Red Sox, are looking to be the first repeat champions since the dreaded Yankees won three-in-a-row from ’98-’00. While Red Sox Nation has to be ecstatic after last year, we are not easily sated–but if 3 in 10 years after 0 in 85 years doesn’t do it, I am not quite sure what will.
This offseason, they signed journeymen pitcher Chris Capuano, Rich Hill, Edward Mujica, and elderly A.J. Pierzynski (he is 37, catcher) and oft-injured outfielder Grady Sizemore. The big news focused on players they did not re-sign: Jacoby Ellsbury (signed with the Yankees for $153 million), Jarrod Saltalamaccia (signed with Miami for a paltry $21 million), and Stephen Drew (as of now, he is still unsigned by anyone). It can never be too early for a preview with what has to happen for the Sox to repeat, despite the fact that spring training does not start until Thursday with a double header against Northeastern Huskies and our very own Eagles.
Replacing Jacoby Ellsbury is the first big chunk that has to fall perfectly in order to return to the World Series. Despite being injury-prone, when healthy he is one of the best leadoff hitters and base stealers in the game, and plays a well-above average centerfield. Defensively, young Jackie Bradley, Jr. will do a better job in centerfield (future Gold Glove center fielder if I was a betting man); while not quite as fast, he already seems equal to Ellsbury and will only get better when his skills get refined. Offensively, Shane Victorino is healthy and will give roughly the same offensive production with slightly more home run potential. He also has hit leadoff before (about 1000 plate appearances for you math folk).
Yet is significantly worse hitting leadoff as opposed to batting elsewhere in the lineup. The other possible leadoff hitter is Daniel Nava who gets on base just a frequently, yet last year was his first year playing in over 100 games and has rarely hit leadoff. Either way, a slight drop off in production offensively when compared to a healthy Ellsbury. The one area that Ellsbury cannot be replaced in is base stealing, speed in general. It takes five highest in steals combined to replace his 52(!), which was good enough for major league best.
With all that said, the loss of Ellsbury should not tank the offensive abilities of the Sox, the league leader in runs scored last season (as long as Father Time does not hit too hard). Six of the nine projected starters and an additional three backups will be on the wrong side of age 30 next season. While normally not something to guffaw at, it is typically the age where decline sets in and injuries are more frequent.
Pedroia (one of the six) has proven thus far, that neither injuries nor age will affect his game. The three that will have to be paid the most attention are Victorino, Pierzynski (and David Ross who will split time with him), and David Ortiz. Ortiz is probably the most surprising name on that list; however, at the age of 38, he will have a drastic decline at some point.
The last and most unpredictable thing that needs to happen in order for a repeat championship is young player production. Bradley Jr. has already been mentioned and will have to be successful offensively in order to play everyday. Will Middlebrooks has something to prove this season after a tough season and all the potential after his rookie campaign. The true wildcard is Xander Bogaerts. After a strong postseason showing, he has been handed the starting shortstop position (unless a trade or signing happens, which is highly unlikely). He will have his ups and downs working through this season, but has the potential to be a star. This one is more unpredictable, but I expect Xander will be in contention for Rookie of the Year.
So to the big question I have been avoiding: will they repeat?
No. I cannot foresee a repeat for the Red Sox; pitching will be consistent in an offensive American League and offense will have its good days and bad, but championship seasons need magic. There is a reason no team has been able to repeat since 2000; there is simply a lack of disparity between most teams (granted, the Astros are just terrible). The Yankees will be must stronger this year and considerably healthier. The Tampa Bay Rays and Joe Maddon always find a way to put a good product on the field. Baltimore Orioles have enough pieces to contend and the Toronto Blue Jays should be much better. And that’s only the American League East–the Detroit Tigers, Oakland A’s Cleveland Indians, and Texas Rangers all return the majority of 90+ win teams. Do not get me started on the National League with some of the best overall teams in baseball.
There is still time for so much to change (World Series is still eight months away), and things always change. For now, just be happy that baseball is starting again and let me (and those who love baseball with an undying passion) worry about everything else. And if you have not been yet, make the time to go visit Fenway Park–the baseball cathedral.